So, this is a historical novel by Laura Ruby, set during WWII, but we see the war itself only from a distance. What we’re really doing in this one is following two protagonists. The first is a girl growing up in an orphanage in Chicago . . .
The first time they took Frankie to the orphanage, she couldn’t speak English, only Italian. “Voglio mio padre! Voglio mio padre!” That’s what she said, over and over and over.
At least, that’s what the nuns told her she said. She couldn’t remember any of it.
So, this is a third-person narrative, right?
No! It’s a first-person narrative, by the other protagonist.
Frankie punched the pillow as if her restlessness was all its fault and fell back onto the bed, fell asleep. The shadows lengthened, shifted, creeping over the floors, the furniture. Mice scratched in the walls. A fox cried in the distance, or maybe it was a wolf. In and out, the sisters breathed in unison, agreeing for once. And yet the papery whispers wafted through Frankie’s dreams. Sono qui. Io sono qui per te, Francesca. I am here. I am here for you.
Of course it wasn’t her mother’s voice she heard. It was mine.
Because the dead never sleep, you see. We have so many other things to do.
This is Pearl, who died in the great flu epidemic of 1918. Or did she? Her memory is unreliable. Frankie’s memory is also unreliable. Everyone’s memory is unreliable; everyone’s life is built on a foundation of sand that shifts and slides beneath them. We’re told that right up front: At least, that’s what the nuns told her she said. She couldn’t remember any of it. Despite this warning, the reader is unlikely to guess up front just how little everyone knows about the past; just how fundamentally everyone’s understanding changes over the course of the story. Except I’m telling you, I suppose, so now you know about that. I hope that’s all right. It’s impossible to discuss this story without laying out its fundamental quality of unreliability and seismic shifts of understanding.
What the reader sees up front, revealed in the first chapter, is that this is not a third-person narrative, but a first-person narrative by an omniscient narrator who dips in and out of everyone’s thoughts and memories. The transition from apparent third-person to actual first-person-omniscient is so good. Laura Ruby is such a masterful storyteller. If you’re interested in the craft of writing, then you should certainly read at least the first part of this novel and see how she builds the reader’s expectation that this is one kind of story and then tips the reader sideways into a different kind of story.
If you’re interested in the daily small-scale lives of people living through the 1940s, then you should try this novel for that reason. If you enjoy ghost stories, then this is a good one. The ghosts are handled beautifully in this novel. A lot of them just continually act out the moment of their deaths, or at least exhibit signs of their deaths. Others are more free to act as they wish, get involved with other things. Or are they? Whether living or dead, the past never goes away, it seems, even if we forget about the actual events we lived through. This is a story about that.
It’s also a story about girls – girls who long to live their own lives but are continually beaten down by the world around them. Boys do not have a great time either – hardly – we see several boys who go off to the war, and some of them don’t come home, or come home wounded. But the points of view through which the reader sees the world are those of girls, growing up and living in the uncertain and circumscribed world of the 1940s.
That orphanage is grim; the family that left Frankie and her sister Toni there is grim in a different way – except for older brother Vito, whom we see only through his letters to Frankie. The wider world is grim in yet another way. This story would be practically unreadable except for three things. The first is the first chapter of the story, which is essentially the epilogue, presented first, so that the reader can be sure Frankie and her sister wind up on a relatively okay place, ready to build better lives for themselves. The second is the resilience of the girls, both living and dead. The third is the bright, blazing joy of a ghost who finally resolves the lingering trauma of her death and ascends to heaven. That moment holds out the possibility of joy for everyone, including both narrators. Pearl, no less than Frankie, ends the story in a much improved position as she comes to understand what really happened to her. The reader is given a way to see a path for Pearl’s death to become kinder than could be while she was lost in a blank confusion of forgetfulness, even though she doesn’t (yet) ascend to heaven herself.
Thirteen Doorways is also a novel closely based on the actual events of the author’s mother-in-law, Frances Ponzo Metro, who lived from 1927 to 2018. The author’s note about that certainly adds depth. I almost wish Laura Ruby had put that in the front of the book, and yet if she had, I would have skipped it to read the actual novel, so I guess not. However, it’s there, and if you try this book, you might like to read the author’s note first. It ends, “Every word is fiction. And every word is true.” That’s something that can be said about many novels – the ones with depth. You may recall the recent posts here about one-dimensional versus complex characters. The characters here are complex. I’m going to think about that and write a post about complexity in characterization, but the heart of it is that the characters seem like real people. These do – both Frankie, who is based closely on a real person; and Pearl, who as far as I know emerged fully formed from Laura Ruby’s imagination.
I’ll leave you with the epigraph of this novel because I like it a lot and it certainly suits the story:
The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.” – George Eliot, Janet’s Repentance.